Is Tarot an Art or a Science?

I’ve given a lot of thought to this question over the years. To me, it seems to illuminate a fundamental schism in the Tarot community, between two different (and perhaps even irreconcilable) reading styles: “traditional” readers and “intuitive” readers.

Anyone who has read previous posts on this blog will know without a doubt that I fall into the former camp, but I promise, I write this post without judgment and without trying to say that one style is better than the other. I have seen beautiful revelations from intuitive readers, of the sort that I (bounded as I am by my left-brained reading process) would never be able to offer. But this intuitive reading style is simply not how I connect with the cards.

My Tarot reading practice is about methodology. It always has been. It’s not about what the cards make me feel, but rather, analytically, about what information I can extract from a spread. Part of this is in the interplay of abstract form (the spread I’m using) and specific content (the cards themselves). Part of it is in looking at additional information like astrological correspondences and elemental dignities, and finding trends that may bring to bear on a reading.* Most of it, if not all, is about looking for patterns. Is there a predominance of a certain suit or number? Is there a run (5-6-7-8) or a cluster of cards that share a certain characteristic? How can that pattern be interpreted?

It would be wrong to describe my approach to Tarot as “science”, because it doesn’t really follow the scientific method. It’s not an experimental, empirical approach, and frankly, I don’t think that such a thing as a purely empirical (and therefore scientific) Tarot is possible. The process of Tarot reading brushes up too much against the outside world and variables that can’t be controlled, and it’s inconsistent with Karl Popper’s criterion of falsifiability. But my practice is undeniably a distinctly rational approach, and the way I analyze variables in a Tarot spread is similar to what you might see at the end of a scientific experiment. I find a pattern, something that sticks out–either because it’s unexpected or because it appears to confirm information that I had previously–and then try to interpret it. And inevitably, as is done in science, I’ll caution that my interpretation can and should change when new information comes to light.

My reading style puts a bad taste in some readers’ (and, for that matter, many querents’) mouths. Some people feel that it strips Tarot of the magic inherent to the cards, to which I say that’s kind of the point. I don’t believe in magic, but that doesn’t mean that Tarot is useless or meaningless to me. I can approach it through the left brain and still find value in it, in a rationalistic (though not quite scientific) way.

I was told once by another reader** that “Science doesn’t belong in Tarot”. But I really disagree with that. The problem, I think, is a difference of definitions regarding the word “science”. To my mind, science is not an ideology. It’s not a closed-minded refusal to accept anything that can’t be explained. Quite the opposite, actually. Science to me is about openness. It’s about asking questions, looking for answers, and accepting any possible explanation for the world, so long as that explanation is consistent with observed reality. But, going hand in hand with that, science is also the acceptance that one might be wrong, and the willingness to question one’s beliefs if presented with evidence that runs contrary to them.

That, to me, is the essence of what Tarot reading should be.

But enough about science. Now on to art.

This is, from what I’ve seen of the world, how intuitive readers approach Tarot. To them, the process of reading is a creative outpouring, an accomplishment of the right brain (and, if you believe in such things, of the soul) above all else. I’ve heard many readers say that Tarot can’t be quantified, because it’s a subjective, creative, emotional art, and that attempting to analyze it rationally would ignore its very non-rational essence.

I think that’s true, to an extent. It’s certainly difficult to ascertain what makes a good reading different from a bad one. And without some measure of gut feeling, it’s nigh on impossible to say which of dozens of potential interpretations should be ascribed to a card in a certain position, especially in combination with other cards.

Fortune Teller by Albert Anker

But when we label Tarot an art, we run into the same problem that we did when we were calling it a science: one of definitions. Because now we have to answer the greatest whopping question of aesthetic philosophy: What is art?

If you just Google “define art”, you’ll come up with a very basic definition: Art is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”. And by that definition, I think we can all agree that Tarot qualifies. It’s certainly the application of human creative skill and imagination. There is, I suppose, a visual component, if you want to talk about the physical cards themselves. And any Tarot reading worth the price of admission will pack a serious emotional punch. So by Google’s standards, sure. Let’s call Tarot an art.

Now, what about more nuanced definitions of art? What happens when we get down to the nitty-gritty details of what is (and isn’t) art? I was at the Guggenheim Museum here in New York a couple of weeks ago, and one of the pieces on display was just a light bulb hanging in an empty room. Does that qualify as art? Why or why not? The definition we choose to frame our understanding of art itself will, by its nature, change how we perceive the intersection of Tarot and art.

Aesthetic philosophy is a big, messy field, and we certainly don’t have the time to get into all of it here. But here are a few important questions for you:

  1. Does art have to faithfully represent reality? Is a family portrait more or less artistic than a surrealist or cubist painting?
  2. Does art serve a social purpose? Is art with a political message more important than the still life paintings hanging in the Prado?
  3. Is art necessarily beautiful? If a work was created with the intention of being ugly, can it still be considered art?
  4. Are certain media more artistic than others? Are painting and sculpture more serious artistic works than theatre or graffiti?
  5. How important is the artist’s intention to create? If a renowned artist intentionally paints something that looks distinctly like what my four-year-old cousin did by accident, is the former piece art and the latter not?

All of these questions affect the extent to which we can talk about Tarot as art. For example, if art must be beautiful, then we have to ask ourselves: Is there aesthetic beauty in a Tarot reading? Sure, a Tarot reading may help people, may aid them in discovering their own inner beauty, but is the reading itself beautiful? Is anyone (other than a Tarot reader) going to see a Celtic Cross laid out on a table and feel his heart skip a beat in wonder at its aesthetic power?***

These are questions that each reader must answer for him-or-herself. But I do think that they’re important questions to consider, for those intuitive readers who conduct business under the auspices of art.

Is Tarot an art or a science? In reality, it’s probably neither. Maybe a mix of both. Such is the way of things, I suppose. There are no clear-cut answers. But there are a lot of important questions, and reflecting on these questions can help strengthen any reader’s understanding of the craft.


*e.g. “There’s a lot of Mars going on in your spread, which suggests that, even though the cards themselves aren’t negative, there’s some underlying conflict here that you have yet to resolve.”

**Who is, by all accounts, a lovely woman.

***Actually, considering how overrated the Celtic Cross is, perhaps even a Tarot reader wouldn’t be inspired by it. I suppose it depends on the reader.

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12 thoughts on “Is Tarot an Art or a Science?

  1. Beautiful post! Personally, I feel like it’s a mix of both. It takes a skillful eye to see the the hidden patterns and an artistic, almost storyteller’s approach to unfold the cards and their meanings. There was one reading I did for someone and it moved me so much because the layout was feeling kind of blah but when I started to turn the cards over, the whole tone changed. I was overcome with so much joy and happiness and I hadn’t even registered which cards were where yet. It was a reaction I haven’t experienced again (yet…?). It made me think back on the Tarot mentors that helped me in a dream: Jaqen H’ghar (Game of Thrones) and The Cut-Wife (Penny Dreadful). Each person represented the art and the science of Tarot but they constantly flipped between the two. I feel like they were showing me that you definitely need both when approaching the Tarot. Love it!

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      1. Yes! I love Penny Dreadful! I have this thing about Eva Green. She’s so captivating to watch and feel like Vanessa Ives is THE character for her! All the actors and characters are amazing!
        Do you have the Tarot deck from the show? It’s extremely dark and the artwork for the Majors and Aces is wonderful. I think I might use it as a Majors only deck since the pips are kinda blah. I guess I might’ve just talked you out of it if you didn’t have it 🙂 (honestly, I got it to fangirl about the show)

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  2. for me, art is technique. science explains. and for me, tarot is a holistic art because it consists of the art of interpreting through physical symbols, quieting the mind, and trusting your heart all at the same time.

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    1. I understand what you’re saying. To me, “interpreting” and “explaining” are sometimes very similar, and I have difficulty marking the boundary between the two. Art sometimes looks like science, and vice versa. (For example, many universities quibble over whether mathematics should belong to liberal arts or to sciences.)

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  3. You are awesome and hilarious! This post really made think about Kant, Plato, Aristotle and Galileo… But, I won’t start a revision on Philosophy 101 to see if I remember everything I read during my university years… I’ll talk about tarot instead… So…I think, with my little simple minded head, that Tarot is a mix of many things! It’s technical, and free form, it’s intuition, it’s analytical, it’s rational and at the same time emotional. I believe that understanding how you personally reason your every day life (wether if you are more sensitive or intuitive, thinking or feeling, judging or perceiving – yes… it’s a Myers & Briggs personality type reference) helps you understand your way of reading the cards… Ps: I honestly still haven’t found one spread that is aesthetically appealing to me, the Celtic Cross has to be one of the most boring layouts ever… in my opinion. Cheers!!

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  4. Gadfry, you dared to invoke Science??? Well done. Science is always going to be involved with the human brain, as is art. At least my brain. I never bother with defining these things, just enjoy them.

    I struggled for years with the dichotomy between my inherent rationality and the strong pull of my right brain. There is always someone about trying to tell me that one is bad and one is good. They are naturally both good, both vital.

    My approach to tarot is often humorous, artsy, intuitive, but I also have a firm grasp of the underlying pattern, the history, the meaning. Some days I like that, some days I like the other.

    I don’t like to do readings for people as it brings things up…too close for comfort, so I fiddle away with cards in my own way. There was a huge controversy over the Lenormand system and correctness. I tune such things out; it’s another subjective way of beating others down, trying to prove the “rightness” of your position and beliefs. So tiresome.

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  5. I think Tarot is an art in the same way possessing a well-honed skill is an art (e.g the art of speech, the art of music etc). Not art in the expressive way (unless you are a tarot artist, of course)

    I very much appreciate the methodology in Tarot – I can study complex texts and documents for hours and I like to deeply study the systems that I adhere to. This is what essentially ALLOWS me to perform an “intuitive” reading later – since I have mastered the methodology, my synthesis of the information comes faster as well.

    I used to be a classical pianist for years, and to me, Tarot is very much that same experience. The person who gets a 10-minute ad hoc reading from me sees a good skill of self-expression in words (Tarot readers must be storytellers); they see that you are well-versed in complex systems of symbology, perhaps also history, art history, anthropology, mythology, astrology, astronomy, sociology etc etc, but they see the end result – not the thousands of hours you have spent learning all of that!

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  6. I enjoyed reading this, and I like the way you approach the Tarot. Personally, I’m a paradoxical type of person who believes “art” is the true meaning of life (for lack of a better phrase), but whose mind is geared more toward a “scientific” way of illustrating that, if that makes any sense at all (I know, it doesn’t really, hence the paradox). I suppose this is why my connection with the Tarot is heavily influenced by mythology: the myths themselves are artistic by nature, but I can only appreciate their artistic “meaning” by analyzing them in a scientific fashion (well, as scientific as any literary theory can really be). But that’s neither here nor there.
    I approach the Tarot a little differently than you do. I accept the merits of both strict methodology and the more free-form intuitive approach. I don’t rely on either as my primary approach; it depends on many factors, like the question I’m asking, the spread I’m using, the deck I’m working with, etc etc. Generally, I’ll look at a spread more than once, with intuition the first time, and more and more systematic with each successive look, to compare and contrast and see what works best in that situation. Now, the Tarot for me is more of a tool to help with the study of the so-called collective unconscious than to read fortunes (although now that I think of it, one is probably just the application of the other), and as such I don’t take my reading methods as seriously as some others, which I can get away with because I don’t really read for other people except maybe my closest friends.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your perspective! Interestingly enough, I tend to avoid reading for my friends. On the one hand, it’s useful to have background information to fill in a reading, but at the same time I feel that I can’t be as frank with people I know personally as I can when I’m in a purely professional setting.

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